The smart Filipinas of Seattle’s Oriental Mart
SEATTLE, Washington — When visiting Pike Place Market in Seattle, try exploring beyond the riverfront shops and perhaps you will find a Philippine haven on the other side of the street. Or, to be sure you locate it, ask the Filipino flower vendors beside the famous salmon fish throwers.
Pike Place Market, is a must-see site in Seattle, Washington, where one can find all kinds of small-scale farmers, merchants and hobbyists. It serves as a busy hub for ten million visitors annually, who check out what is unique, useable or edible produced in the area.
There are shops that sell antiques and collectibles, craft and food from family-owned restaurants, Pacific Northwest fish and seafood and fresh produce from local farmers all year round. Of the millions of annual visitors to Pike Place Market, some find their way to the only Philippine bazaar in the market.
This haven is called Oriental Mart, a sari-sari store of Asian products and a kitchenette-type restaurant where Philippine food is served, contributing character to this global meeting place in the Pacific Northwest.
The usual clients are Filipinos who discover Oriental Mart, drawn in by nostalgic cues from sights and smells and tastes of a remembered Philippines. A few seasonal regulars are Filipino passengers and crewmembers from cruise ships who inevitably learn about the place by word of mouth from other Filipinos. But according to grand matron Milagros, most of her customers are non-Filipinos who work in the vicinity.
The day I visited, a few customers were lamenting that the spareribs on the menu were finished; but luckily they still could have Leila’s famous fried chicken wings. An Indian from Chennai seated at the counter ordered some sinigang (sour soup). A British American was with his spouse, savoring the tender, fall-off-the-bone spareribs. A swarthy American said he would travel across town for Leila’s chicken wings.
Some regulars came to satisfy their adobo cravings. Even famed bizarre-food eater Andrew Zimmern tasted Leila’s salmon sinigang, adding his cachet by saying (on Travel Channel during one of his visits to Seattle) that “this (dish) is one of the best I’ve eaten in a long time.”
This little niche is a modest, but long-running enterprise, managed by the Apostol women.
‘Madres de familia’ Apostol
The Mart’s mainstays are the Apostol women who welcome all visitors and steer them in the right direction in the store based on their needs, including Philippine food.
Nanay Milagros (Lola to the kids) is the overall supervisor, and Joy (Mori) is the front store manager.
In the kitchenette, Leila (Rosas) is the orchestrator (and cook) who exchanges friendly, even sassy, banter with the customers. (“We have to make eye contact to be sure I can take your order.” “If you do not know how to eat our sinigang, do NOT order it.” All said with a smile, of course.) She is well known for her “trust me” plate, suggesting what and how much you might like. The initial negotiation begins: “Anong gusto ninyo?” (What do you want to order?) then Leila prepares the food in the open kitchen.
The menu, although limited for the day depending on her available ingredients, can range from chicken adobo, pork adobo and the popular fish sinigang, longganisa (sausage), or Leila’s favorites: kare-kare (oxtail stew), dinuguan (pork blood stew), sparerib sinigang and, last but not least, bulalo (cross-cut beef shank in broth). The results are true home-cooked, lutong-bahay meals (with a hint of Seattle fusion).
Leila prides herself on the freshness of all the ingredients because they come from the local farmers’ market across the street, which provides fish and vegetables. In turn, many of these fish and produce sellers, plus the market security guards, regularly eat at Leila’s kitchen. The menu is set on what ingredients are available and what she wants to cook that day.
Secret of success
Almost three decades old, the kitchenette is a big draw. Nothing soothes one’s body and spirit like the good food of one’s youth. And if you can provide that, you’ve got it made, according to Leila. This is true for all Filipino clients. For others, in addition to the good food, it is the friendly atmosphere that makes them stay and come back, again and again.
The Apostol women insist that customer service is their priority as interaction with people is important in making them “feel at home.” This is a place where you can eat by yourself but not feel alone, Leila adds.
Since it is a family-run business, the overhead costs are not much, and hence, the place makes a reasonable profit and has helped send the kids to college and on vacations, Leila says.
The kitchenette is open from 10:30 to 4 p.m. daily.
How Oriental Mart started
The Apostols through their “leader,” Maning, from Malolos, Bulacan, came to the US in 1969 and shortly thereafter the older kids followed, including Ray and Leila. Nanay (Milagros) arrived three months later, with the younger three: Lemuel, Manuel Jr., and Joy Mori. The last sibling, Edward, was born in Seattle.
In 1971, seeing an opportunity in Pike Place Market, Maning and Milagros opened an Asian grocery store of sorts with Nanay (Milagros) managing it. Raising six kids, four boys and two girls, aged from three months to 12 years, Nanay believed that owning and running her own store would allow her to earn some income and keep an eye on her kids at work.
“At the same time, when they are old enough, I trained them to help out in the store and by doing so, pass on my work ethic to them,” she says proudly. Many grandkids have followed, formed and shaped by these values and experiences. Nanay Milagros, with her MBA degree, has an ideal background for running the store.
The kitchenette opened in 1987. Luckily, Leila, the eldest girl among the first-generation children, was interested in cooking and running it. As practical as her mother, she realized that the business provided an ideal combination of doing what you want to do and earning some money for the family.
“We are typical of a large family wanting to lock in the Philippine dream in America and doing the best way we can to grab our piece of happiness here. We take care of each other, and we try to help others as well,” Leila says. Most relatives help out in the store when they can, including the older grandkids during summer break.
Leila’s sister Joy, excellent at managing sales, keeping inventory updated, and overall promotion, became an indispensable part of the business. The men in the family also pitch in, but the women run the show. “The major spark behind the success of our livelihood is caring about people, paying attention to what they want; this is good public relations,” says Nanay Milagros.
Does she have “bigger” dreams for the business? Nanay says they have found their niche in Pike Place Market, which encourages small enterprise. “Our business has been thriving and successful for 44 years, and we aim to continue what we are doing for the future.”
1506 Pike Place, #509
Seattle, Washington 98101
Tel. (206) 622-8488
We asked Leila to share with us one of her popular recipes: Salmon Sinigang. When asked what makes it special, she says the major factor is the “freshness” of the ingredients:
“We get the freshest of the fresh salmon tips, that’s what makes it special. We start with all fresh ingredients every day, we get the salmon collars from the different fish vendors of Pike Place market every morning, part of the vegetables (mustard greens and tomatoes) are bought from the corner store produce.“
Serves: 4-6 persons
- 10 cups of water
- 3 lbs of “fresh” salmon collars
- 2 tomatoes, cut up
- 1 medium (yellow) onion, cut up
- 1 bunch of green onions, cut into one inch pieces
- 4 jalapeño peppers
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 2 packages of Knorr tamarind soup mix (unless you can find real sour Philippine tamarind)
- 1 bunch of mustard greens, washed and cut into pieces
- Boil 10 cups of water in a pot
- Add vegetables into pot (tomatoes, onions, green onions, jalapeños)
- Add fish sauce and tamarind soup mix
- Bring ingredients to a boil
- Add fresh salmon collars to pot, and DO NOT STIR!
- Simmer ingredients in pot for about 10 mins
- Add mustard greens
- Turn off heat from stove, serve, and enjoy!
Video: Elias M. Ferrer
Video editing: Ivan Kevin R. Castro
Styling: James Saarenas
For more stories on the Filipino diaspora go to PositivelyFilipino.com
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